FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2013: Salem State University.
The Guide to Living on Campus for Massachusetts’ Salem State includes a Policy Against Racism (PDF) that applies to all students living in the university’s residence halls, spaces where students often speak the most freely. That policy “prohibits racism, anti-Semitism and ethnic or cultural intolerance.” It also prohibits
all actions or omissions—including all acts of verbal harassment or abuse—that deny or have the effect of denying anyone his or her rights to equality, dignity and security on the basis of his or her race, color, ethnicity, culture, or religion.
While the intentions behind this policy are good, its overly broad language subjects large amounts of constitutionally protected speech and expression—including core political speech—to punishment. While things like “anti-Semitism” and “cultural intolerance” sound bad, who decides what qualifies for punishment? Obviously the university can and should take action if a Jewish student routinely finds swastikas drawn on her dorm whiteboard or is continually harassed on the basis of her religious beliefs. But what if someone is deeply offended by, say, a Palestinian student’s passionate expression of anti-Israel views? Or by anyone else who makes a statement that another person perceives as culturally intolerant?
At UC Berkeley, for example, several Jewish students filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that anti-Israel protests on campus had created a hostile environment for Jewish students. OCR dismissed the complaint, citing free speech and the importance of exposure to “robust and discordant expressions” in the university environment. Yet Salem State’s policy, with its broad ban on any kind of “cultural intolerance,” threatens these exact kinds of “robust and discordant expressions.”
The policy’s ban not only on “actions” but on “omissions” makes it yet more troubling. What kind of “omissions” might the university deem to deny someone’s “dignity” on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity? Remember that the First Amendment prohibits compelled speech just as it protects free speech. While students who speak out against others’ intolerance may deserve praise for doing so, students who choose not to cannot be punished for their silence.
For these reasons, Salem State University is our October 2013 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You can also add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.